Thursday 26 January 2012

The Name's Double. Ampleforth Double.

As I emerge blinking from another round of the game I like to call "Dishing It Out About Beer" (go and join in the fun at the Fletch-curated Real Ale Reviews), I'm reminded of an event that happened 24 hours ago that throws the all the arguments about "craft beer", keg vs cask, the relevance of CAMRA in the 21st century et al into a cocked hat.

When you look at these beers, there's little to inspire confidence. Sure, they are pre-production samples, but there's nothing about them that makes you think "ooh, helloooo". You might raise one eyebrow at the monastic connections to Ampleforth Abbey, raise the other eybrow at the 7%abv. But then perhaps you'll lower the first eyebrow noting that sugar is listed as an ingredient, and then lower the second raised eyebrow when you note that the beer isn't brewed on site, but is actually contract brewed by Dutchman in exile Wim van der Spek at his Little Valley brewery near Hebden Bridge. All of this eyebrow waggling, resembling windscreen wipers on a rainy drive, might have given you the appearance of Roger Moore doing a mid-period James Bond. If, like me, your experiences with Little Valley beers have been a bit mixed - on cask, delicious and sometimes ethereal, in bottle, mmm, not so much - you might even have lowered an eyebrow by now.

Anyway, that frightfully clever, look-at-me-and-my-fancy-words preamble is a roundabout way of saying that last night I opened these beers, and they completely cut through the craft-cask-keg-CAMRA debate about where we go from here, because these are simply very well-made beers, and great examples of what they should be. Perhaps my expectations were lowered from all the eyebrow waggling, and I have to say that the initial banana and acetone notes that wafted out of the glass were a little unnerving, but given a couple of minutes to breathe, this blossomed spectacularly into a really solid, slightly sweet, slightly boozy Belgian-style double/dubbel.

I know, I know, it's really unlikely, but there you have it. I spoke to the guys at the abbey today and they have a colossal first bottling run booked in. I won't say exactly how much, but my initial "yeah, I could sell a bit of this, but I wonder how much?" finger-in-the-air estimate of how much to buy was about a half of one percent of the total production run. They're clearly slightly mad - the only English abbey beer, brewed under licence by a Dutchman 50 miles away - but like all mad things, there's an element of greatness to it.

More pertinently for me, it underlined that actually the key thing that makes a beer great is, very simply, that it must be well-made. No doubt some smart-arse will pop up and say "but that's the definition of craft". Well, bullshit. There are well-made beers, and then there are the rest. If you can brew a beer and get it into a glass free from any production flaws, and tasting broadly how it should taste (let's not use this as an argument about styles), then you'll have made me, and a legion of drinkers, very happy. It seems like a modest set of desires, doesn't it? Brew a beer free of flaws, ensure it carbonates properly, and tastes (for want of a better word) nice.

Anyway, I drank the first bottle of badly-labelled, contract-brewed Ampleforth Abbey Double, and when I got to the end, I thought "was it really that good?" and drank another one to make sure. And you know what? It really was that good.

Monday 23 January 2012

We All Love Beer And We All Love Beer

This is going to be a great year for beer in Leeds. As Sweary Matt points out on his blog, it's North Bar's 15th birthday this year (it's nearly old enough to drink!), the Leeds beer scene is going from strength to strength, and we're hosting the European Beer Bloggers Conference. If you live in Leeds, it would be really easy to look forward to a great year of beer, to put your feet up at home with selection of fine beers purchased from a local independent retailer, or prop up the bar of one of Leeds' fine drinking establishments, and just congratulate yourself. But you know what, let's not do that just yet.

We're beer bloggers, and we blog about beer because we love it in all its myriad glory. We have our own ranking system run by Wikio/ebuzzing, we're a happy community of like-minded souls, and we're a splendid group of people. But something that's been levelled at the beer blogging community is that it's a bit insular - it talks to the converted rather than recruiting new drinkers to the cause. So given that the conference in May is going to be great - we'll take that as read - why don't we try and broaden the scope of the attendee list a bit?

I've been chatting to Leigh at The Good Stuff, and over the next few months, Leigh has agreed to host/organise/curate a series of beer and food tastings at Beer-Ritz in Headingley, Leeds (disclosure - that's my business). The idea behind this is specifically to try and recruit some of the excellent West Yorkshire foodie bloggers to the conference, and also generally to promote beer and/or beer and food together. Leigh is kicking off on Monday 6th February with an evening of baking and beer. I'm sure that Leigh will follow up at some point with more detail, but the poster (designed and executed by Ghost Drinker) tells you all you need to know - come along between 6 and 9pm, and have some baked sweet treats and a mouthful of beer to wash them down. Please do come along, and if you can bring one of our foodie blogging brethren or sistren, so much the better.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Raw Sensation / Unmediated Pleasure

Look, bear with me, there will be a point to this.

I studied psychology as an undergraduate degree. Along with a lot of contentious nonsense, a few interesting things stuck with me. One was the phenomenon of being at a party, or in a busy pub, and hearing someone say your name against a chorus of 50 people talking. The implication here is that your brain is unconsciously monitoring everything in the room, and then when something interesting happens - like someone saying your name - your brain shimmers into the room like Jeeves and politely draws your attention to it.

Another thing made an impression on me was seeing a couple of my tutors argue about 'raw sensation'. That's the idea of the moment that brain senses something is going on, but hasn't yet made sense of it. The example that was given was if you touch your finger on something and can't tell if it's really hot or really cold. Your reflexes just go "NO!" before your brain can figure out exactly why it's going "NO!".

All of this was brought back to me recently when I was watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations", where he hangs out with jefe of El Bulli, Ferran Adria. Part of the programme is Bourdain, Adria and couple of others eating their way through the El Bulli tasting menu - a few dozen courses, each just a mouthful or two.

One of the most striking things was the joy that Adria clearly got from eating the food he'd designed. He obviously didn't get to sit down and eat his way through his own menu every day, and to see him have a succession of "HA! WTF?!" moments was beautiful to behold. There's a fairly rudimentary description of this sensation here in paragraph seven, where I have my mind blown in a way that I never have before, and I also touch on it here.

Maybe what made me think about this was Boak and Bailey's flagging of my reaction to a beer. Or maybe it was the pint of Tetley's I had tonight that had a weirdly evocative hint of orange blossom the reminded me of spring in Seville. Or was it the pint of Wadworth's Henry's IPA I had at Christmas that had a faintly stale backnote to it that reminded me of my parents drinks cabinet at Christmas, but when I was ten years old.

Well, I promised a point at the start, so I guess I'd better make one. How much of drinking beer is an intellectual exercise, using the front brain to analyse what's going on, and how much of it is an almost pre-cognitive reaction to what you're drinking? Can we give finely graded 100 point ratings to beers, where we pull it to bits, or is a simple binary yes-no system good enough? And returning to the image in my mind of Ferran Adria rolling his eyes and grinning at his own food, isn't it important to have a visceral reaction to what we drink, as well as a cerebral one?